Creeping Religious Rightism in the Democratic Party -- Still Creeping
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Jan 10, 2013 at 05:35:46 PM EST
Let me begin by saying that I am agnostic about the relatively minor matter of brief prayers at public events. For me, it is less the prayer and more what event organizers think they are doing when they stage a presidential inauguration ceremony and other public events.

I want to make two points about this.

Rob Boston gets at my first point in his good post questioning the value of the "tradition" of inaugural prayers, and the risks of using an inaugural prayer for political pandering.  

Indeed, the pandering to white conservative evangelicals is obvious in the choice of the (now ungraciously withdrawn) Rev. Louie Giglio.  The inaugural committee claims he was selected because of his work in opposition to human trafficking. But no matter how wonderful his work in this area may be, it is also beside the point.  There are many ways for government officials to recognize the good works of private citizens. Rather, the selection was a reductionist political statement that illuminates the problem. The committee made clear that Giglio was not selected because they thought he could hit the right note to open the inaugural ceremony, but according to some other standard.  And in so doing, they failed to consider the whole of who Giglio is, and therefore whether he was the right person for the occasion.

Underscoring the out-of-whackedness of the criteria the  inaugural committee used is that Giglio's controversial anti-gay sermon easily showed up in a blogger's Google search.  To have made such a spectacularly avoidable error demonstrates the narrowness of some people's thinking and is a dramatic example of the unintended consequences of the political commodification of faith that so informed elements of the Democratic Party for a number of years.

The problem, as I said above, it not really a matter of prayers and no prayers.  What really matters is how we respect religious differences and embrace pluralism for people who are religious and non-religious; Christians and non-Christians -- as a lasting value of constitutional democracy.  Finding ways to profoundly represent the values of democratic pluralism in what we say and do in public life is a powerful way to inoculate our politics and government against theocratic interests while also honoring the rights of all. It is reasonable (and I think necessary) to insist that our elected and non-elected representatives embody these values. This would probably save at least some of them from the avoidable error of thinking that grafting ersatz elements of church services onto public events is actually a good idea.  

Of course, both parties have viewed faith and "people of faith" as political commodities in ways that have been crass and demeaning to both religion and government. I am not so naive as to think that there were ever some halcyon good old days when politicians would never, ever think of exploiting the most sacred of religious traditions for political advantage.  But we can also be realistic about how we make our political culture to reflect our values, and to avoid pandering to the lowest common denominator.

When pols get in the business of making the choice of who will give a public prayer based on crass political calculations; or in order to send a "message" regarding over arching values and political image making --  the "message" that they wish to send is not always the one that is received, as we have seen in the cases of both Rick Warren and Giglio.  At the very least, relying on such personifications of superficial messages is risky. And the risk is not only to the passing political interests of a president, but to our most deeply held common values as a nation.

My other (and closely related) point is the very structure of the roles of the prayer givers in the inaugural ceremony. No matter who the people offering the prayers may be, the opening prayer is formally called an "invocation" and the closing prayer is a "benediction."  The use of the terms implies that the entire event is kinda like a Christian church service.  

So once again, we have crass political operatives hijacking the trappings and structure of sacred ceremonies to graft elements of majoritarian religion onto a ceremonial high point of constitutional democracy.  Such opportunism not only exploits and demeans religious traditions, but fails to properly exalt the values of constitutional democracy itself.  Its the political and religious equivalent of the kinds of junk food that do not even taste good.

In this case, the Obama inaugural committee's effort to pander to conservative evangelicals blew up in their faces -- and I believe for the above-mentioned reasons -- which are a feature of the ongoing problem of creeping Religious Rightism in the Democratic Party.  


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